Some might say that October 21, 2021, may go down in history as the moment the world embarked on another transformational digital journey. This was the day when Facebook changed its name to Meta, and while this corporate rebranding exercise might not be taught in the virtual classrooms of the future, its role in kick-starting the accelerated development of the metaverse just might. As such, it has the potential to have far-reaching consequences across the technology ecosystem, going beyond entertainment and requiring the attention of enterprise tech leaders.
Meta imagines a future where we live in a “hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world. It will let you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together.”
While it shows where we are perhaps heading, this visionary language illustrates where we currently are with the overall metaverse story—some way off from (virtual) reality. From technologies and use cases to live applications, today the metaverse is just one of many nascent digital concepts that will seek to capture our attention in the years ahead.
The metaverse, however, has some in-built advantages, not the least of which is it brings proven technologies and online experiences together so that our digital lives can become much more immersive and integrated with the real world. Indeed, many people are already familiar with elements of the metaverse, particularly those who enjoy online gaming, where there is no shortage of compelling “worlds” where you exist as an avatar, interact with others and spend virtual money, among many other activities with a real-world equivalence.
Moreover, it will extend this concept beyond entertainment and into many other aspects of our lives—the workplace included. As such, it has huge potential—so much so that the likes of Meta, Apple, Google and Microsoft (among numerous other brands) are expected to battle it out for market share.
Facebook alone set aside $10 billion last year for metaverse investment, and while this seems like a lot, it’s small beer compared to the potential value of the ecosystem as a whole, which could hit $30 trillion within the next 10-15 years. Should predictions like this get anywhere near to being accurate, the metaverse will dwarf the size of every other established industry sector.
Irrespective of how big the metaverse becomes, it’s unlikely to be a trouble-free process, with concerns already raised about a whole range of important issues, from security and sustainability to equality and safety.
Putting entertainment and lifestyle applications aside, a big test for the ubiquitous adoption of the metaverse will be how it changes the way businesses operate.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella commented recently that the metaverse will manifest itself in different contexts and business processes. He said: “If you look at retail or construction, that’s also like when you create a digital twin: you have a factory and you are trying to visualize how to simulate its operation. That’s also a game-playing exercise, except you’re not game playing. You’re trying to simulate how a factory functions.”
Moreover, the metaverse is likely to have an impact on how customers interact with businesses, such as those seen in virtual retail experiences, where augmented reality (AR) is already being used. But looking ahead, the ability to pre-visualize experiences—instead of looking at images or videos—such as holiday locations and accommodation, or when viewing a property for purchase or rent, are likely to be prime candidates for integration into the metaverse.
In the workplace context, however, improving, replicating or replacing real-world situations will require significant improvements in user experience to make them viable. Take employee training, for example, where more immersive digital experiences have real potential to improve engagement and outcomes. That potential needs to be turned into deliverables, and organizations will need to see further innovation in the development of technologies and applications before committing to the metaverse.
But organizations looking to explore the possibilities the metaverse may bring are well-advised to take a positive approach and experiment with new technologies, ideas and applications. In doing so, they might find the limitations of current technologies and step back from any immediate commitment, but just because the time might not be right now doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. Don’t forget: However pervasive the metaverse becomes, business across the economy will remain dependent upon on-site, in-person capabilities. For instance, across a huge range of field-service organizations, it remains to be seen how deeply the integration of digital-first technologies will go. Industry innovators will need to look closely at the possibilities to harness the benefits of the metaverse to enhance traditional processes.
If the recent history of technology innovation has taught us anything, it’s that general adoption of new paradigms often takes a lot longer than people expect. Consider the hype that existed around the software as a service (SaaS) sector at the turn of the millennium, which subsequently took years to become the global success story that it is today.
The metaverse may well follow a similar pattern, not least because there are huge technical challenges to overcome before today’s somewhat siloed social, AR, VR and supporting technologies can be integrated at scale. For tech leaders, however, it represents another area with the potential to deliver innovation, efficiency and competitive advantage. In the meantime, we’ll continue to see tantalizing examples of what our digital future will look like, and that’s going to be an exciting set of real and virtual experiences for us all.